Getting to Moscow is just painful. Not only is it necessary to spend three and a half hours getting there from London, but it’s three hours ahead which means that however you look at it just about any flight you take means wasting most of the day unproductively in the air. Which is fine if you want to sleep, but not much use on the work front. I think I’ve finally worked out the least painful way to do it, but it involves going to Amsterdam first.
Step one is to take the early flight to Schiphol and spend the day working in the city. Step two is to arrive back at Schiphol about two and a half hours ahead of the eight-something evening KLM flight to Sheremetyevo. This bit is important, because there is a later Aeroflot code share flight with KLM. You do not want this flight. Take it from me. The ‘plane is a zoo, just like flying with the Penquins of Madagascar. Last time they took away my boarding pass to change it and then tried to have me thrown off the flight because I didn’t have a boarding pass. Early arrival at the airport gives ample time to negotiate a seat as far forward as possible. This bit is also critical, because you need to exit the ‘plane at the other end as quickly as you can in order to get ahead of the immigration queue. Failure to do this can seriously effect your mental well being.
Now comes the best bit. Make your way to Holland Boulevard between piers E and F. Here you will find the Bols Experience. It is a cocktail bar where you can get proper cocktails, but all made with Bols. The woman who runs it is a bit of a tyrant. She doesn’t like you to mix cocktails and she doesn’t like you to have too many. In fact, she will stop serving you if she considers you’ve had too much to fly. Try giving her any lip and you also get to instantly regret it. It’s clearly not her business.
So, have just the two cocktails. Honestly, they are strong and you don’t need any more. Plus a burger which she will bring you. After this proceed to your flight at a leisurely pace, fall asleep immediately you sit down in your seat and in a miraculous feat of time travel, wake up at Sheremetyevo three hours or so later, refreshed. And because it’s half past two in the morning there is no immigration queue – and anyway you’re at the front of it so you don’t care. You can then afford to take a further nap in your hotel room because you are now three hours ahead of London and even if you don’t get up until ten, it’s still only seven in the morning back home.
There’s only one way to start the day when you’ve been on the apple martinis all night. There’s this great cafe called the Coffee Company in Gelderlandplein, Amsterdam, where it’s light and airy and there are comfortable armchairs and a long refectory table to sit at. It’s sort of how you might want your kitchen to be. The coffee is good, it’s quiet and it’s just the place to rest up with a hangover before starting the day. Why can’t all those formulaic Starbucks be like this? I suppose because then this place would be in a high street and there would be too many people in it.
Off the beaten track a bit and near the old Olympic stadium, you’ve got two other good places to stay: the Hilton and Bilderberg Garden hotels are right next to each other in Appololaan. We quite often end up playing room rate roulette between these two places. The Hilton’s rooms are a bit tired now and you are almost guaranteed to get a room with connecting doors, but it has a really great bar, which is both large and has comfortable armchairs and a nice open fire if you can get near it. It looks out onto the boating lake, very pleasant in the summer and atmospheric at night when lit up. The bar staff know their wines too.
The Bilderberg Garden just across the road from the Hilton is an interesting place. Apart from anything else it has a first class restaurant called De Kersentuin. I think that means cherry something in Dutch. I know that it used to be a very well regarded place to eat as one of my Dutch colleagues is bit of a foodie and was very enthusiastic when we all ate there one evening. I don’t think it has quite that foodie reputation these days, but it is certainly of a very high standard. Also a very good wine list too. Not too long, but clear and easy to work around and quite good value for a top class place for a nosebag.
I can’t quite work out what this hotel is trying to be. I rather like it, not just because they provide slippers in the rooms and have big bathrooms, but also because it has a great barman. It’s sort of somewhere between an upmarket tourist hotel and a business hotel. There are all the work-related things you need like a decent desk and high speed wi-fi, which of course is a rip-off like everywhere, but it has a private hotel feel about it too.
It is to my shame that I’ve never asked the name of the barman. He’s a bit diffident at first, but warms up when you get him to open his cocktails recipe book and get creative. Last night I started him on the benchmark cocktail, a vodka martini which if it’s made properly will tell you what the rest are going to be like, then we worked through the more creative variations – a couple of apples and then espresso variants. I have to admit that although his apple martinis were very good, it wasn’t his fault that the barman at the Taj Residence, who currently tops the league table on this one, had access to a sharper type of apple more suited to this cocktail. Must be an Indian variety. But his conversation was very entertaining. I’m wondering whether I should start a good barman category.
The last few weeks have been centred around working in Amsterdam, so I have been at the mercy of Dutch hotels. I keep meaning to write about some of the ones I’ve been using, but somehow the days have slipped by. So here are some thoughts.
It’s generally quite a civilised place to be, Amsterdam, although the excitement of the central parts of the city wore off for me many years ago. So I now tend to stay outside the centre and look for places that are quiet and clean with a decent bar. Having said that, I stayed in the Mint hotel recently and although I wasn’t much looking forward to it, because it’s right by the Central Station, I have to admit that grubby location and freezing fog apart, it was really quite pleasant.
What do you look for in a hotel? I suppose a useful place to start is with what you really hate about staying in hotels. I hate grubby rooms. I hate rooms with connecting doors. And I hate eating alone in restaurants. So when I find somewhere that ticks those boxes it’s good news. First of all the Mint is brand new and they hail it as an ‘exciting new international adventure’, well that’s quite a statement to live up to. But certainly the rooms are clean and bright. The design is quite minimalist, they call it contemporary, so only time will tell how the style fares after a few hundred nights of abuse. Bathrooms are a bit cramped but the showers are good. This is important when you’re greeting the world first thing in the morning after a heavy session in the bar the night before. Hopefully these guys will keep the maintenance programme up and the clean bright feel will stay. They will also need to pay attention to making sure the technology works. I would hazard a suggestion that equipping the rooms with iMacs could end up being an expensive choice. You need to be a moderately tech-savvy guest to make it all work. But for now it’s great and that number one of hotel rip-offs – the wi-fi Internet connection – is free.
The restaurant serves good food, well prepared and served by cheerful and clean-looking staff. It’s also a place that you don’t feel exposed in and service comes quickly so you can get in and out without fuss.
Yes, it’s definitely a high 7 out of 10 sort of place and would score even higher if it wasn’t in such a pit of an area. I didn’t try the Skylounge bar that was so highly recommended on check-in, because after a short pause for reflection, the receptionist did concede that there wouldn’t be much of a view due to the freezing fog. And they didn’t have those slippers that you get so you don’t have to touch the carpet with your bare feet. That would be a nice touch too.
I think I’ve just had the worst Indian meal of recent years. Desperate to eat something after a long day we called into this place in Overtoom in Amsterdam. The clue should have been the empty restaurant and the fact that you couldn’t order beer. My colleague had said the food was very good but later admitted he hadn’t been there for several years and that the chef might have changed. I should think so!
There is a theory that I have formed over the years. When eating in a Thai restaurant order the Tom Yam soup to start, when in an Indian order some popadums and pickles, in a Chinese … you get the picture. You’ll soon see by the quality of what turns up on the table what the rest of the food is likely to be like. It rarely fails. This time the system worked to perfection. The popadums were dry and stuck to the roof of your mouth. The pickles were only two and both were thin and bland, out of a jar. But by this time we were committed and regrettably had already ordered. The chicken jalfrezi was tasteless, lacking any body or anticipated distinct flavours and the lamb biryani had to be abandoned after half a piece of lamb. It wasn’t actually off … but. The food looked listless and colourless in the bowls.
Being English I paid the bill and left. An early night and no alcohol. What a waste. The thing was, there seemed to be an active trade in take-aways. Can’t imagine why.
I have just stayed in an excellent hotel in Amsterdam. The Okura (www.okura.nl) to the south of the centre. The service philosophy shines through from the moment you check-in to the thoughtful touches in the rooms. The last time I stayed here I actually woke up to a view over a city farm and watched pigs, goats and geese as they roused themselves in the morning sun. Like most things Japanese, it’s not cheap and you will need to persuade a sympathetic local PA to find a good rate unless you work for a company who doesn’t mind what you spend.